NEW YORK – Stephen Colbert is about to turn a corner in his career: onto Broadway at 54th Street.
Having split from cheeky Comedy Central a few blocks away, he will now hold court at old-guard CBS. He will inherit the theater, time slot and series title (though with an added “The”) owned for 22 years by David Letterman.
Little wonder that Colbert’s disciples – his erstwhile Colbert Nation – wait anxiously to see what “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” will be like: How beholden will it be to late-night talk-show conventions stretching back six decades? Will it abandon Colbert’s signature political edge? Can it build on the uniqueness of “The Colbert Report,” a sui generis concoction Colbert tailored to his skills and passions?
If the early guest lineups offer any clue, he'll offer a rich blend of talk: Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush and Vice President Joe Biden will appear the first week, along with entrepreneurs Elon Musk (SpaceX and Tesla Motors) and Travis Kalanick (Uber), plus a show-biz mix including George Clooney, Amy Schumer and Toby Keith.
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His online spoof of Donald Trump that was posted in June suggests he’s poised to lampoon the 2016 presidential race.
Does he have any marching orders for when he steps onstage at 11:35 EDT on Tuesday?
“No one has asked me to do anything,” he says at a reporter’s intimation that CBS aims to plug him into a preexisting late-night hole. “They have said, ‘Do what you do, but give us more.’ ”
More is certainly on tap. Colbert will air for an hour five nights a week, more than double the Monday-through-Thursday half-hour output he maintained for nine years before exiting Comedy Central last December (and retiring his on-air character, aka The Character).
“Before, I had four acts,” he says. “Now I will have seven acts … and a band (led by versatile Louisiana-bred musician Jon Batiste). But it’s not about the pieces. It’s about what you do with the pieces.”
Colbert, 51, comes to “The Late Show” after establishing himself in the guise of a messianic blowhard who spoofed Bill O'Reilly and his Fox News Channel show “The O'Reilly Factor,” with maybe a touch of Rush Limbaugh thrown in.
On “The Colbert Report” he played the host as a jerk, but endearingly “someone who wasn’t AWARE that he was a jerk; a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot. I wasn’t sure that I could get all four of those rotations on the ball. But it worked out.”
His was a game of three-dimensional chess, especially with the interviews, which became his favorite part of the show (“the written pieces are invention, the interviews are discovery”). But they were also exhausting.
“Talking with a guest, I had to run everything through the CPU up here” – he points to the computer in his noggin – “to grind out a version of myself, instantly, while keeping my intention as a satirist evident inside the Trojan horse of my character’s role as a pundit who trades on divisiveness.” Whew.
Despite (or, more likely, because of) this Rube Goldbergian process, Colbert’s interviews were not just funny, but as incisive as anyone’s on TV. With his native observations and inquiries shining through the prism of his on-screen persona, he emerged as a stealth truth-teller. His doltish pronouncements, when decoded for their satirical intent, shrewdly analyzed politics, public affairs and the media as, without ever breaking character, he logged a marathon of performance art unmatched in TV history.
In short, on “The Colbert Report” he proved he could do the impossible. But now …
“Can I do the POSSIBLE?!” he cuts in with a chortle.
He has no doubt that, yes, he can. And to demonstrate, he’s been introducing the Stephen Colbert he will be with his online comedy segments, targeted features like a GQ cover story, and a growing drumbeat of other publicity. (Item: For a limited period, drivers using Waze, a navigation app, can choose Colbert’s voice to speak their driving instructions.)
Along the way, he’s learned this brand of possible is easier than he imagined.
“So far I’ve pre-taped at least half-a-dozen interviews as myself,” he says. All the while, The Character “sat on my shoulder, saying, ‘Let ME do it! I can make everything a joke!' And I would go, ‘No, no, I want to see what it’s like to do it WITHOUT you.’
“I liked those interviews, they were very enjoyable,” he reports. “And I’m not tired when it’s over. I feel great. That’s the most startling thing to me!”
Still, he senses the reporter is unconvinced that he can stick to his guns once he lands in the late-night arena.
“I’ve been in late night for a DECADE,” he counters. Hello: “The Colbert Report” began at 11:30 p.m. But now, he jokes, he'll have five extra minutes to prepare. “Five more minutes! We'll REALLY have our (stuff) in a pile!”
As he resumes his nightly appearances after nine months’ absence, he makes no demarcation between what he did before and what lies ahead.
“I don’t like saying ‘the old show.’ That show’s not over for me,” he declares, noting that his whole creative team remains with him.
“I will not do this show through the mouth of someone who is always afraid and angry and wants you to join him in those feelings – that’s all that will be different.”
Even so, will he be as funny when stripped of his dim-witted proxy? Can he convey the big ideas he used to put across so forcefully through artful misdirection? That’s what his fans fret about.
They may have forgotten that Stephen Colbert is a gifted improv artist – Second City is on his resume – so The Character, his know-nothing mouthpiece, was just one of countless roles in his repertoire, including the role of himself. No wonder Colbert says he now feels liberated: “I wanted the ability to use more of me that I could never show you on ‘The Colbert Report.’
“Whether people will miss The Character too much, I can’t say,” he concedes. But the real guy was far from unexposed all those years.
“I promise you,” he vows reassuringly, “you saw me the entire time.”